USS Clueless - Decompressing Iraq

Stardate 20030929.1414

(On Screen via long range sensors): Brian Tiemann points to an extraordinary column written by Johan Hari which was originally printed by The Independent and is also posted on his own web site, where he talks about the experience of some young Iraqi exiles from the UK who spent most of the summer in Iraq.

It is long and covers much territory and You Should Read The Whole Thing. (I'm not kidding. Long time readers will know that I don't say that very damned often.)

But there was one thing in it in particular which struck me:

Yet, Yasser admits: "The first fortnight, I was really, really depressed. Everyone in Iraq had been totally conditioned to wait to be told what to do by the state. Anybody with initiative got tortured or killed by Saddam, so people just waited for orders. So even after the liberation, they couldn't understand that they were free; they didn't know what it meant. But then I saw that gradually they were realising, and that day by day they were sort of defrosting."

If you take the long view, concentrating on changes over months instead of over days, then if you look at what's going on in Iraq you see that things are definitely improving and changing, and that the rate of change is accelerating. After the fall of Baghdad, some both inside of Iraq and elsewhere had the expectation that the Americans would wave their high-tech magic wand and within a few days would instantly rehabilitate the power grid and water supply. All crime would instantly vanish from the streets. Everyone would suddenly have jobs and would become rich.

Obviously it didn't happen that way, and in fact the early administration in Iraq did not do a good job. But after a few weeks, it became clear that the top administrator was the wrong man for the job, so they kicked him upstairs and sent Bremer to take over.

But there's another reason why it is that the rate of change has been accelerating, and that's because many things start slow and then pick up speed. That happened with things like the power grid, but where that is most critical and most important is in the attitude and behavior of the people of Iraq themselves.

For 25 years, the people of Iraq lived under the most brutal and harsh of oppression. Anyone who drew any attention and suspicion at all would vanish in the night, or be taken away publicly in daylight. Some people were taken pretty much at random, tortured, and released just so everyone else would remain in fear of the government. Some people were forced to watch their own children be tortured; some such children were maimed or killed. In a situation like that, everyone learns to be extremely scrupulous about saying and doing exactly what they think those in power want them to. When any hint of dissent leads to a horrible death, you don't tend to get many dissenters. And if you hold such an opinion, you lock it deep inside yourself and try to suppress it.

So they're not used to thinking for themselves, and making decisions for themselves. They're not used to being free.

And like everyone who's been through a horrible experience, it's taking many of them a long time to decompress, and to begin to believe that the nightmare is over.

In the Antarctic, penguins nest on land but hunt at sea. There are leopard seals and killer whales who think that penguins are delicious, and who know where the rookeries are located. They hang out in the ocean nearby and wait, looking for a meal. If a group of penguins want to go to sea to hunt, the first few to enter the water take the greatest risk, and no one wants to be the first. So they collect on the edge of the ice, and jostle themselves, and eventually one or two lose their balance and fall in, and then the rest of them dive in after them.

Iraqis are not penguins, obviously, but there's something like that going on. After 25 years where expressing any kind of independence could earn you a horrible death, or earn such a death for everyone you love, it's hard to believe that it's changed. They were told that it was changed, but was it really true? And was it permanent?

There was a natural tendency for most to not take that chance. But a few took small chances, and didn't suffer for it. That encouraged others to try a bit more as time went on.

The first independent newspapers were very tentative. The Americans said they believed in free press, but did they really? And would supporters of Saddam visit the newspapers in the night? It was a risk, and those working on those newspapers were doing things which would have gotten them all killed just two months before.

But they didn't suffer. The Americans left them alone, and they didn't get visited by Baathist death squads. More newspapers appeared and began to be more frank, and Iraq now has the most free press in the Arab world. But that didn't happen overnight.

Part of why this change began slow was simple emotional trauma. People who go through a terrible experience go through a period in which they don't quite believe it's over. They may fear that it will happen again or that something like it will happen; to a certain extent they live in the past, and look fearfully to the future. It can take counseling for some people to really get past this. Some never do.

We're dealing with an entire nation that's going through this. We have to give them time.

But another reason for their reticence is that we betrayed their trust once before.

"People still fear that somehow the Americans will abandon us and Saddam will claw his way back from the grave. They say, `It happened in 1991, it could happen again.' That's one crucial reason why people are reluctant to cooperate with the coalition."

They don't totally trust us. And frankly, we earned that distrust.

In 1991 after the Gulf war, when Saddam had been weakened, the Bush administration gave speeches supporting revolution against Saddam, and many Iraqis responded by rising in revolt. Then they discovered that we weren't willing to back that up with actions, and without our help they didn't have a chance. It's not unreasonable for them to wonder if we're really determined this time to see the whole thing through. Even now, with Saddam deposed and in hiding somewhere, will the mercurial Americans suddenly lose interest and pull out, leaving a power vacuum which Saddam will once again fill by reestablishing Baathist rule? Were I an Iraqi, I could not dismiss that possibility.

And those who speak freely today, might discover that their names had been added to a list of "those to be liquidated" after the Americans cut and run and Saddam returns to power.

Certainly the generally negative news reports coming into Iraq from outside don't help that any, nor does twenty years of propaganda they've been fed about us. For twenty years they've been told that we are rich and powerful, but decadent and cowardly. They've been told we're bullies, who are willing to beat up on the weak but who won't take real risks. They've been told that we're only willing to fight when we know we can win easily. They've been told that we have the world's best weapons but will retreat when just a few of our soldiers start dying. Those pushing this idea can point to Beirut and Somalia as examples of how the Americans seem to have great guns but no balls.

And as they listen to news reports where many in the world and here in the US argue that we should retreat because of the purportedly intolerable level of casualties we are sustaining, there's certainly reason to fear that we might do just that. Having only just recently been released from hell, they might once again fall back in the pit.

Those behind the resistance hoped that if they could cause ongoing casualties, that the Americans would eventually falter, just as they did in Beirut and Somalia. Their effective allies elsewhere have tried to capitalize on that, to bring about the same end. (For instance, de Villepin says, "There's a spiral of violence and terror and everything must be done to stop it," de Villepin said. "The solution lies in a transfer of sovereignty.") Much of the projected gloating in commentary about Bush going back to the UN emphasized that the US was becoming desperate due to ongoing casualties.

As time has gone on, though, the rate of attacks and the number of casualties they've caused has dropped. And it's becoming clear that it isn't going to make us lose heart or leave. (All it really seems to do is to bring disaster on those who make the attacks, which is part of why they aren't happening as often anymore.) And the people in Iraq, having been delivered from a nightmare, are beginning to recover emotionally from it and are becoming more confident about the future. And as they begin to experiment with the novel experience of actually forming opinions for themselves, and talking to others about those opinions for some, for the first time in their lives and as more and more people around them do the same, the perceived risk begins to decline. It's a lot safer to be one of the penguins in the middle; there's safety in numbers.

Trepidation is receding, and enthusiasm is growing. As things finally begin to get better, there's more willingness to join in the process of trying to make it improve even more. That, in turn, helps the process to accelerate.

But you have to learn how to do that. There are skills involved.

The young Iraqi exiles Hari writes about are part of a group called Iraqi Prospect Organization, and they weren't just sight-seers. One thing they did was to offer classes in some of the basic skills involved in "being free".

The IPO people went to Iraq with clear goals. First, they wanted to establish debating societies and newsletters in the Baghdad universities. "These are going to be the seeds of democracy," Yasser explains. "Once you learn to argue against people instead of killing them as Saddam did, you're on your way. We explained to the university students that they could have different newspapers - and even have different opinions in the same newspapers - and it seemed totally surreal to them. They just couldn't understand it. But when they realised that it really was possible and nobody was going to punish them, they were so excited that they were just obsessed.

"They were in the middle of their exams and supposed to be studying, but they insisted on writing and photocopying a newsletter that they distributed everywhere. They wrote articles on amazing things they could find out about on the internet - philosophy and art and the difference between proportional representation and first-past-the-post! It was the best thing in my life, seeing that," Yasser says.

These are things we all take for granted. We grow up in a free society and learn these skills as children. But the students at those Iraqi universities were all born after Saddam took power, and until the invasion, they never knew anything except his oppression. It was a revelation to them that you could disagree with one another. You could even do it in print!

You could get onto the web; you could read any web site you wanted! You could seek out things you were curious about, and no one would monitor you to see if you were subversive! These things we take for granted. These things are completely new to them.

I suspect that for most Iraqis, the single most astounding aspect of the American occupation (besides the fact that it finally happened, at long last) has been that we have not been arresting those in Iraq who have publicly criticized us. When mullahs returning from exile in Iran made speeches demanding we withdraw and that Iraq become a Khomeneiite theocracy, we left them alone.

Some here feared that tolerating that would cause more and more Iraqis to flock to support such movements, and that the majority Shiites might coalesce around such a political position.

But the exact opposite has occurred: those early opposition speakers were seen by most Iraqis as being noteworthy because of their public opposition, not because their message was attractive. Many watched attentively to see how we'd respond. When the proto-theocrats were not persecuted, other Iraqis with other opinions began voicing them, too. Some were critical of the Americans, some were supportive, some were mixed. A lot of what they talked about didn't have anything to do with us at all. But the one thing most of them came to agree on was that free expression itself was a pretty neat thing, even if they didn't agree about much else. Since the would-be Iraqi theocrats wanted to take that away from them again, support for the theocrats has not materialized, and most of them have ceased advocating establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iraq.

There's a line we don't let them cross. The self-declared "Mayor of Baghdad" was ultimately taken into custody, mostly to get him out of circulation for a while. Eventually he was released and, having had his fifteen minutes of fame, vanished from view. Certain Islamic extremists actively preached jihad and directly advocated violent attacks against the Americans, and some of them have been informed that this is not acceptable.

But for the most part, those who criticize the Americans not only don't suffer immediate and terrible consequences, they actually can in some cases directly meet representatives of the Americans and directly voice their complaints and criticisms. And the Americans often respond, not by torturing and shooting them but by trying to address their grievances.

A few days ago I wrote about how we as citizens must operate on two levels, and how patriotism mandates reasoned dissent at one level, but not at the other. We can, and we should, actively voice our concerns when we believe that government policy is wrong, but we must all subscribe to the deepest fundamental principles on which our system is founded: free thought, free expression, constrained representative government and citizen political involvement. No matter what opinion any one of us holds on any other issue, each of us must strongly support the idea that everyone has the right to hold and express other opinions. We as a people must be nearly unanimous about freedom itself so that we can disagree with one another about almost everything else.

And that's what seems to be happening in Iraq. The ongoing acceleration in the expression of more and more diverse opinions there shows a growing consensus that public expression of diverse opinions is a good thing.

That's contagious; it appeals to something deep in human character, something that transcends culture. We humans are designed to think and make decisions, but we have to be taught, and usually we have to be forced, to blindly follow orders. Our fundamental independence can be suppressed but never eliminated. It's still in there, waiting, in everyone. And now that oppression has lifted, it's starting to bloom in Iraq. As time goes on, it become more wide spread, in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. And it will accelerate.

And that means we're beginning to win the war. This was the real reason for conquering Iraq. This is our best strategic weapon against the extremists who attacked us. Their power is in their ideas, their beliefs, and basic to them is a dedication to uniformity and central control, of submission of the masses to the will of the few. We counter that with our idea about individual liberty, and our idea is better. I believe that it's better ethically and esthetically. Societies based on our idea are more productive in nearly every way. And our idea is more competitive memetically. Our idea is more seductive, more attractive. Against it they have little defense.

Diversity and freedom are anathema to them, and it is our dedication to those things which have made us more powerful than they are. If our idea continues to spread, their ideas will be marginalized and will wither away. And then the war will be over.

We will eliminate our enemies not by killing them in hordes, but by infecting them with ideas which will convert most of them to friends. That process has now begun.

Update: Meanwhile, somewhere on a planet other than the one I live on, there are those who still oppose the war.

Update: From The Lebanon Daily Star:

It is worth stating the obvious, so momentous is it: For the first time in almost half a century, Iraq has no executions, no political prisoners, no torture and no limits on freedom of expression. Having a satellite dish no longer means going to jail or being executed. There are over 167 newspapers and magazines that need no police permit and suffer no censorship, over 70 political parties and dozens of NGOs. Old professional associations have held elections and new associations have sprung up. People can demonstrate freely, and do.

The neighbors are starting to notice.

(By the way, I found both of the previous links at Bargarz.)

Update 20030930: Frank Gaffney Jr. describes some other ways in which things in Iraq are improving.

Update 20031001: Representative Jim Marshall (D-Ga) writes in the Wapo:

Falsely bleak Iraq news circulating in the United States is a serious problem for coalition forces because it discourages Iraqi cooperation, the key to our ultimate success or failure, a daily determinant of life or death for American soldiers. ... For Iraqis, news of America's resolve is critical to any decision to cooperate with coalition forces, a decision that can lead to death. Newspaper start-up ventures and sales of satellite dishes absolutely exploded following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. With this on top of the Internet, Iraqis do get the picture from America -- literally. ...

It is too soon to determine whether Iraqis will step forward to secure their own freedom. For now, responsible Democrats should carefully avoid using the language of failure. It is false. It endangers our troops and our effort. It can be unforgivably self-fulfilling.

Democratic candidates for the presidency should repeatedly hammer home their support, if elected, for helping the Iraqi people secure their own freedom. It is fine for each to contend that he or she is a better choice for securing victory in Iraq. But in making this argument, care should be taken not to dwell on perceived failures of the current team or plan. Americans, with help from commentators and others, will decide this for themselves.

Instead of being negative about Iraq, Democratic presidential candidates should emphasize the positive aspects of their own plans for Iraq. Save the negative attacks for the issues of jobs and the economy. Iraqis are far less likely to support the coalition effort if they think America might withdraw following the 2004 election.

He's right that the Democratic presidential candidates should be emphasize their own plans for Iraq instead of spending all their time criticizing Bush.

But it's unlikely to happen. They'd actually have to develop a plan and have the guts to publicly describe it and defend it. It's a lot easier to criticize what someone else is doing than to actually do something yourself.

More to the point, the Democratic candidates are campaigning for nomination, not for general election. Therefore, most of them are trying to suck up to the most dedicated parts of the party overall, the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party". That means those for whom our involvement in Iraq is deeply, fundamentally wrong. That means those who are only interested in hearing how soon we'll get our sorry asses out of Iraq. That means those who think that anything we do in Iraq and any outcome we help create there is axiomatically worse than anything that could conceivably happen there without us.

Update 20031003: In order for this to keep working, we will have to remain engaged in Iraq for a long time. In this article I explain why we must expect to keep a military force of at least 50 thousand men in Iraq for a period on the order of 30 years.

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